13. Engaging Stakeholders

Many individuals and organizations have a stake in the success of undergraduate geoscience education and a responsibility to accomplish the vision for the future.

In this section we examine answers to several questions related to accomplishing the community vision for the Future of Undergraduate Geoscience Education based on the input received from geoscience employers and academics from across the country as part of this project. They are:

volcano erupting
  • Who are the key players in facilitating change in approaches to geoscience education?

  • What roles and responsibilities do those players have in the change process?

  • How could/should those players interact with one another to achieve the vision?

  • How do we reinforce those ​interactions?

The departmental head/chair is at the nexus of assorted key players and influencers including the faculty, undergraduate program director, the college dean and university administration, and external stakeholders such as the K–12/2YC community, donors and alumni, employers, professional societies, and policy makers (Fig. 13.1). It falls to the department head/chair to lead the change though, as data from this work shows, they often feel un-empowered and surrounded by barriers and obstacles, apparently set up by the key players, which limit their ability to lead change.

The 2014–2015 survey data show that common obstacles and barriers perceived by department Heads/Chairs are:

  • Faculty resistance: lack of consensus regarding the curriculum/pedagogy; lack of reward structure

  • Budget cuts from above

  • Lack of support/vision from above

  • Lack of time

  • Lack of funding

Department chairs as communications nexus

Fortunately, initial input from Summit and workshop participants shows that department heads/chairs can succeed in helping key players recognize their roles and responsibilities in effecting change (see Section 12; Appendix C). A head/chair can stimulate and shape change. You can educate your faculty on the general academic and employer community consensus on the conceptual understanding, skills, and competencies needed by undergraduate geoscience majors. You can empower faculty to make curriculum/course changes using the backwards design/matrix approach. You can establish academic cultures that reward innovative teaching, including promotion and tenure decisions. The key is understanding that patience and persistence are a department head/chair’s power position and provides more influence and tools than readily assumed. Department heads/chairs can leverage their position in concert with responsibilities and expectations of key players to achieve the vision and the roles other stakeholders may play.

The Faculty

The faculty comprises disciplinary experts who have a professional obligation to keep up with the evolution and changes in their field, be that content, pedagogy, scholarship/research, changes in processes, policies or priorities of the institution, or employer demand. Department heads/chairs can take advantage of those obligations through a “carrot and stick” approach that includes leveraging “crises” such as budget cuts, building on professional pride, team building, setting and modifying workload expectations, individual goal setting, overseeing thoughtful annual performance and post-tenure review processes, and providing access and financial resources for professional development opportunities or seed projects. For example, workloads can be changed to a reduced teaching load so a faculty member may engage in curriculum design efforts to develop and pilot new instructional approaches. Department heads/chairs can engage faculty in setting the expectation that engaging in curricular change is a high priority that will be rewarded through performance evaluation processes. A budget cut can be reframed as an opportunity to make changes to the educational program so it is more effective in educating students and attractive to majors. The department heads/chairs can fund sending faculty to professional development opportunities or bring in a facilitator/consultant, either from the outside or from the University’s Center for Teaching and Learning, to work with the entire faculty to enact change. Departments can offer credits and/or funding to attend these courses or workshops.

College Deans and Central Administration

Deans and central administrators are academic professionals familiar with higher education, but likely not in how they should serve the geosciences. Their success depends on deploying their limited financial resources, time, and professional expertise to foster the meaningful improvement of academic programs. Educating them about this national initiative, and academic and employer’s collective community vision for undergraduate geoscience education, demonstrates the importance of the changes your department is making. This Vision and Change document provides an opportunity and challenge to demonstrate that geoscience departments are essential, and central, parts of each institution.

In this context, a department head/chair seeking their dean’s help in effecting change can continually make the case for how investment of additional resources (however small) will bring the dean reward in the form of improved metrics in the areas where they are held accountable. For example, the department head/chair has the opportunity to keep the dean continually abreast of the distinctive characteristics of the geosciences and its needs in areas such as field education, teaching laboratory space needs, and improving instructional infrastructure to better facilitate active learning.

At the same time, the department head/chair can keep the dean informed on successes that reflect on the dean, such as student employment opportunities or the department’s role in community engagement, natural resources, and sustainability. This should create a reinforcing loop for the dean to “reward” the department, recognizing the reward may be intermediate to long term. Typically, if a dean is well-informed and energized about a department’s contribution, this success will trickle up to the Provost’s office. However, it can be useful to become involved in university committees to increase the visibility of the department and its good work.

Note that the 2014–2015 survey data from this project yielded relatively little information on how deans and upper administration can help, rather than hinder, department heads. The paragraph above represents the insights of the writing team, some who hold, or have held, these roles.

K–12 Community

K–12 science and Earth science teachers can use their expertise and insight on how the Next Generation Science Standards are being implemented, particularly in middle and high schools, to help college and university faculty understand what to expect from incoming students and what pre-service teachers need from their undergraduate education. Faculty can help teachers interest students in the geosciences by developing and providing examples and resources useful in middle and high school classrooms, and by giving talks or lectures. Collaboration between teachers and faculty at the different institutions can increase dual credit or On-Ramps courses and ease the transition between high school and college.

High School Teachers looking at a computer display
Courtesy of the Jackson School of Geosciences, University of Texas at Austin

2YC Community

Community Colleges have diverse administrative structures, therefore understanding the local structures increases the chance of a successful collaboration. Many regions may have several community colleges in a 4YC’s service area, which can make communicating with 2YC stakeholders a challenge. Reaching out to determine what geoscience degree plans, technical programs, and Earth science courses they offer and what their student enrollment/population is, can help focus on the specific goal of a 4YC and help with collaboration efforts.

Community college administrators that oversee geosciences courses or programs need to ensure their faculty are aware of the efforts and trends discussed in this document and what is occurring on a national level regarding 2YC geoscience education. Geoscience 2YC faculty in turn need to educate unaware administrators. Funding for faculty to attend workshops, conferences, and meetings is vital to learning more about these efforts and making important connections. Universities are more likely to have faculty with larger networks and collaborate across multiple institutions on projects, often with the aid of travel funds written into research grants to help disseminate their information and ideas. 2YC faculty, on the other hand, are often less connected with their peers across the country and therefore miss out on the successful and replicable initiatives within the national 2YC community. The SAGE 2YC and Summit series of events has helped change this dynamic. The most effective method of broadening 2YC faculty connections and awareness of national strategies is to enable them to attend local, state, and national geoscience meetings and workshops.

Collaboration between faculty at 2YC and 4YC colleges and universities is critical to ease the transition for students transferring from 2YCs to 4YCs that can increase 4YC enrollment and diversity. Joint fieldtrips, faculty exchanges of seminars and lectures, research collaborations involving students, and other mechanisms can increase collaboration between faculty and students at both institutions. 2YC faculty have expertise and insights on effective teaching and working with diverse communities that is helpful for 4YC faculty.

Museums and Other Informal Education Settings

Museums, science centers, and other types of informal learning settings play important roles in promoting the geosciences by enhancing knowledge about the Earth and the connection of geoscience processes to everyday life. They provide educational opportunities, many through active learning, and can stimulate student interest in the geosciences and reinforce concepts and scientific practices learned in traditional educational settings. Heads/chairs can encourage faculty and students to use museums and their online learning resources to extend learning opportunities and reinforce geoscience concepts.


Understanding where undergraduate students go after graduation, where they are employed, and how they keep in touch throughout their careers is important. Engaging in a long-term ongoing discussion or longitudinal survey is needed to understand what was most and least helpful and what was missing in their undergraduate studies relative to the career they have undertaken.

Alumni and development offices may maintain this information, but departments need to posses this data to effectively engage with alumni on these programmatic topics. Facebook, LinkedIn, ResearchGate, etc., are all helpful in finding alumni, some of whom, may be interested in financially supporting specific initiatives and enjoy hearing what and how their department is doing.


Non-academic employers have professional geoscientists who likely have a much more applied and business orientation than university faculty. In some cases, they may be alumni representing local businesses engaging with the University, or others hiring geoscience students. Their professional success depends in part on the ability to identify and hire geoscience graduates who can be efficiently on-boarded to contribute to the mission of the firm or government agency.

Participating employers noted that the department head/chair may find they can reach out to employers to help with students' education in many ways. Employers can help by providing samples, data sets, case studies, and opportunities for end-to-end learning through conceptualization, collection of data, analysis, and presentation. Company employees and retirees may be willing to help or teach classes or problem-oriented short courses.

Employers are the best resource for promoting career awareness. By fostering communication and engagement between employers and academia, students and faculty gain a better understanding of the skills and competencies needed for success. In addition to having alumni and other employers on advisory boards, invite them as speakers for talks, seminars, and/or classes to discuss ‘real-world’ perspectives, applications, their jobs, and career opportunities. See if they will do short or mock interviews, or give advice on resumes and interviewing skills, online or in person. Some employers will do externships exposing students to what is involved in working for that company. Another source of career information is returning interns who can talk about their experiences, the corporate culture, and values.

If you have research symposia where students present, either verbally or in poster sessions, invite employers to participate, and if appropriate, be judges. This is mutually beneficial — ​students get feedback from external professionals, and employers learn about the department’s program and have an opportunity to see students in a non-interview setting.

Professional Societies

The geoscience societies, such as GSA, AGU, AAPG, SEG NAGT and AGI, play a central role in being career hubs — ​one that students can start engaging with as a student and continue participating with professionally well past retirement. The societies are the keepers of the profession; their members are the society and their values and priorities reflect those of the profession. The societies can disseminate, promote, and achieve the community vision of the Future of Undergraduate Geoscience Education and evolve their own activities as well. Possibilities include: spearheading follow-on meetings and workshops; providing professional development and/or mentorship for students, faculty, and other geoscientists; modifying programming of meetings and shifting editorial focus of journals; and developing or continuing of programmatic activities reflecting the evolved view of geoscience resulting from the Summits (Box 13.1).

Box 13.1: Actions for Professional Societies

At the Summits and Geoscience Employer Workshop, specific suggestions were made for constructive actions by professional societies:

  • Provide more experiences to connect employers with students

  • National and regional meeting sessions with career related information, poster sessions with companies and employers, and networking opportunities

  • Provide venues for employers to interact with students in one-on-one conversations

  • Connect students to willing mentors in their disciplines by developing mentoring programs and expanding current ones — ​i.e., AGU’s Mentoring365 virtual mentoring and GSA’s Schlemon and Mann Mentoring programs. Broaden a mentoring network to include more career paths e.g., Congressional Fellows, Knauss Marine Policy Fellows could be public policy mentors

  • Promote externship and internship opportunities — ​act as a clearinghouse

  • Help develop and provide competency certification or badging, curricula, and/or other educational programs and activities

  • Offer summer courses and field experiences for students and young professionals

  • Offer short courses and workshops to develop professional and technical skills at national or regional meetings

  • Expand opportunities for students to learn to effectively communicate to different audiences. For example, at professional meetings hold sessions designed specifically for students to present their research with verbal and/or written feedback from professionals or a general audience (public, K–12 teachers, policy fellows, etc.)

  • Develop competency, certification/accreditation, and/or badging programs for desired skills

  • Create opportunities for industries and other employers to engage with academia; most faculty have little contact with employers

  • Increase student focus and encourage continuing membership

  • Strengthen the role of their student chapters as catalysts for the various reforms proposed, especially in co-curricular opportunities

  • Develop funding to send more students to professional meetings

  • Provide opportunities for young professionals to be mentors and interact with students at meetings

  • Focus on supporting all students and young professionals and not competing with them as members

  • Design membership enrollment processes similar to engineering societies, such as batch memberships for all students in a department and having a network of student organizations across the US at major universities schools

  • Identify pan-society student and departmental support opportunities and programs

The vision of the future of the geosciences is that of an integrated continuum from student to professional. The societies historically serve both populations, with a primary focus on the professional and a reactive program approach to students. This discrete approach has likely hampered their ability to retain student members through their transition into the profession, with most societies reporting fewer than 10% of student members becoming professional members on a continuing basis. However, these same people appear to rejoin in their mid-30s. Societies need to view members not as discrete categories, but rather as valued individuals transitioning through phases of their life as a geoscientist.

It would behoove the societies to start accepting the new geoscience majors as simply inexperienced geoscientists and look at their structures, activities, and how they touch a person across all phases of their career. The graduate-to-5 years' experience phase, described as “emerging geoscientist” by SEG and by other societies as the “awkward teenage years of a geoscientist”, is where emerging professionals need to be supported like students and provided opportunities like professionals.

Public Policy and the Public

The professional societies, as well as individuals, can engage in change relative to public policy. Historically, specific initiatives pushing discipline-specific changes through the federal system have had little effect. For example, prior efforts to build sustained funding sources for mining engineering programs faced challenges. Such focused efforts run counter to most government investment approaches. The traditional argument, even if flawed, is that if the need is critical, then the market (a.k.a. industry) will find ways to support a solution.

Geosciences also faces a problem of scale in developing human capital nationally. The geosciences tend to be a small player in the primary GDP contribution and are often allocated as an expense for mitigation or regulatory compliance. When coupled by widespread skilled worker shortages such as pilots, truckers, nurses, etc., the national and public priority will align with the more immediate and tangible challenges.

On the federal level, current rhetoric in 2020 related to higher education costs and concerns about the return on investment of a college degree needs to be followed closely by all in the academic community. If changes are enacted to the current federal aid system, this will impact all programs. These questions have been further complicated by the impact of the COVID‑19 crisis and impact on college and university operating budgets. The question is how to prepare for change, and especially how to address the current phase where higher education as a business is having to prospectively align itself for its predicted future, which currently is utilitarian in nature with an increased focus on graduate economic outcomes.

Beyond the federal influence through student aid and research grants, most impacts on higher education occur at the state and local level. These policy bodies are traditionally responsive to local opinion and conditions. If the geoscience community proactively and visibly demonstrates applied solutions to local problems with measurable economic impact, then local policymakers may favor supporting geoscience programs and students. However, providing solutions, and not simply identifying compliance issues, is critical. This makes the public perceive geoscience as being current and part of the team building strong local communities. The department’s core activity will then be demonstrating how these proposed reforms will build a responsive skilled workforce that addresses specific local issues such as flooding, land stability, and economic resources, especially when they have been impacted within the “political memory” of the election cycle.

It is also critical to engage with local school and state education boards since changes to K–12 curriculum and requirements can have a major impact on your incoming students and the future teachers you are educating.

Departments also need to be cognizant of the composition of their board of regents, or similar bodies. Often these are composed of local business and political leaders, whose first interest will be to understand a program’s local impact versus proclamations of national and international stature and placement of graduates at distant organizations.

Catalyzing the Dialogue Between Academia and Employers to Foster Future Evolution

Undergraduate geoscience programs need to evolve with the science, societal issues, and the needs of employers of future graduates. Surveys by AGI have shown that graduate outcomes versus employer expectations are well-aligned, especially in the areas of applied and professional skills (Houlton, 2015). Employers and academics generally agreed on skills as well in the 2014–2015 survey (Summa et al., 2017). However, strong dialogue and a collaborative relationship between industry and departments, is critical to enabling responsive evolution in geoscience programs. Such relationships also invest industry partners in the health and effectiveness of the geoscience programs from which they draw their talent.

During the 2015 Geoscience Employers Workshop, the elements of what constitutes effective and viable collaboration and dialogue were discussed at length. The specifics will vary by circumstance, but some of the targeted ideas are detailed below.

Faculty/Employer Sabbatical Swaps

Pair with employers for a faculty sabbatical to pursue research and experience within that environment. Likewise, enable industry partners to have resident time in the geoscience department to conduct research, teach classes, and work with students. Such arrangements might be designed synchronously as a faculty/professional swap or could be opportunistic based on specific circumstances.

Engagement of Alumni/Professionals in Committees and Activities

Engage local and other professionals to serve on review committees, career advising councils, or similar functions to make persistent connections with local employers and those that hire your students. Though there is often a tradition of tapping alums for such roles, consider engaging non-alums to build out a broader support network and to provide insight and experiences that differ to avoid a completely inward focus that can isolate a program from changes. Where feasible, participation from non-regional alumni, or employers, can also serve to broaden the support network.

Professional Society Chapters

Some of the professional societies such as AIPG, have chapters that connect students to the local professional community. Utilize these chapters to engage the department at an organizational level with the regional or national bodies. Examples of involvement at an organizational level might include active involvement in regional conferences or similar events or building critical networking opportunities between students, faculty, and industry. Departments need to incentivize the broader faculty to engage with these groups as it will form a lasting relationship beyond the duration of student residence time.

Most professional development short courses offered by geoscience societies are conducted by industry members. These courses and lectures are often offered at the local chapter level. If direct student participation in the short course is not possible, leveraging relationships through campus chapters, etc., could be engaged to repeat a short course for students.

Professional Licensing of Faculty

Identify key faculty to obtain a professional geologist license in your state (if available). This license opens up consulting opportunities, encourages currency in applied geoscience issues of concern to local employers, and in many states, enables students to begin to earn “professionally supervised” time toward a professional geologist license themselves, possibly even before graduating.

Seek “Lost” Alumni

Many alumni disappear and do not communicate with their alma mater departments. With only 50% of working geoscientists being formal members of professional societies, there is a large body of practicing geoscientists and employers who are not in the normal communication flow of the geosciences. Making your department their anchor will help them engage and provide unique connections and relationships.

Provide Real Data Sets and Problems

Departments benefit from accessing real data from actual work projects or case studies. Employers at the 2015 Geoscience Employers Workshop indicated that providing such resources should be rather simple, but the single largest barrier is that they are not directly asked. Shared datasets allow students and faculty to collaborate with the providing company on solutions to problems, including the different levels of science required for a complete answer vs. a “sufficient” answer in a budget-constrained environment where business decisions may be made without complete information.

Joint Class-based Research Opportunities

Work with local industry to identify projects or problems that might be appropriate for a class-based research opportunity. Local priority or undercapitalized research problems can be identified by companies and will provide students with real experiences and a value-added return for the collaborating company.


Internship experiences are critical for building work and professional experience by students. Even internships that lead a student to decide a particular area of work is not what they want has as much value as the one where they find their passion.

Paired Senior Thesis Experiences with Internship

One of the hallmarks of many geoscience programs is the senior thesis project. Traditionally, many thesis projects are approached like a master’s research project. AGI studies on library access notes measurable demand for access to senior theses by engineering and consulting firms because they often represent the only pre-existing, detailed data for many locales in the United States. Departments should approach local employers to identify projects of immediate or speculative use that could be conducted as a joint internship/senior thesis experience.

Facilitate Technology Application Opportunities

Research will often yield new and novel techniques, technologies, or methods that can be patented or licensed. Collaboration with industry partners, crafted with assistance from a university technology transfer office, could not only lead to a patentable invention, but the initial market capital to yield a revenue-generating product for the faculty inventor and the department. In fields with thin patent records like the geosciences, a ready-market definition is critical to designing appropriate business plans, and with licensing preferences, for instance, industry partners can be key.


  • Heads and chairs: encourage and support your faculty to complete necessary curricular review and revision efforts and in adopt new instructional approaches

  • Heads and chairs: advocate to the dean for support of your department’s innovations related to meeting our new community educational standards, articulating their relationship to institutional measures of student success

  • Faculty engaged in instructional reform: take or make opportunities to participate in professional development experiences, the more specific to the geosciences and their courses the better

  • Funding agencies, professional societies, and others: support and/or offer a generous menu of professional development experiences for faculty and students to better prepare them for their careers, for adopting reformed teaching practices, and for curricular enhancement efforts

  • Academic departments and geoscience employers: seek to develop and maintain interactive professional relationships with each other, focusing ultimately on improving the abilities and accomplishments of bachelor’s geoscience graduates

The community vision for the future of undergraduate geoscience education articulated in this report is a roadmap for making critical, positive changes to undergraduate programs over the next decade. Our learning environments and curricula must evolve to confront future geoscience challenges and prepare students to enjoy a vibrant and successful career. We urgently need to reconsider our role in educating the next generation of geoscientists for the health of our profession and success of our students.